On her first day of chemo, Akwi decided to become a cancer awareness advocate. Now, she’s cancer free and leads her own non-profit foundation.

Your Health | 7 months ago

From Breast Cancer Survivor to Non-Profit Leader

On her first day of chemo, Akwi decided to become a cancer awareness advocate. Now, she’s cancer free and leads her own non-profit foundation.

When Akwi Anjoh learned she had breast cancer, she thought she was dying. She was just 34 years old and a mother to a 22-month-old daughter. During the day, she felt numb. Each night, she cried herself to sleep. She thought she wouldn’t live to see her daughter grow up.

Akwi hadn’t lived in Charlotte long before she received that diagnosis. Just a few years earlier, she moved here from Cameroon, a country in Central Africa, where people interact with cancer differently.

“In Africa, we don’t talk about cancer. It’s very highly stigmatized. People would look at you differently, think you are cursed,” Akwi says. “Growing up I didn’t know anyone with cancer.” Without that awareness, Akwi didn’t know of the many treatments that help so many people with breast cancer manage the disease, and sometimes overcome it.

Akwi’s diagnosis led to the beginning of two journeys: the first, the journey to heal herself; the second, the journey to raise awareness and to help others understand the hope beyond the diagnosis.

Treating an Aggressive Form of Breast Cancer

Akwi had stage 3 breast cancer which had spread to her lymph nodes. It was triple-negative breast cancer, which means it lacked the three receptors that breast cancer usually has: estrogen, progesterone or a protein called HER2. This is usually a more aggressive type of cancer that’s more common in young and African American women, and it has fewer treatment options than most kinds of breast cancer.

Her doctor, Arielle Heeke, MD, a medical oncologist with Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute, wanted to stress to Akwi that even with a scary diagnosis, there were effective treatments that could help her and a support team that would be there for her through each step.

“Akwi had high-risk disease,” says Dr. Heeke. “Fortunately, we had hopeful information to share with her: That an immunotherapy had just been approved for her kind of breast cancer in the metastatic setting, and we had an opportunity to use it for her now on clinical trial.”

Dr. Heeke guided Akwi through several stages of treatment. The first was chemotherapy with immunotherapy on clinical trial, which brought side effects like nausea, headaches, weakness and pain. Akwi also battled anxiety and depression. She would steel herself for her treatments each Monday, bolstered by the love of her support system who took turns taking her to infusions and then out to brunch or lunch afterwards. They would sit with her in the hospital and calm her fears when she felt scared.

“My last day of chemotherapy was August 7th, 2019,” Akwi said shortly after. “That felt like freedom. I rang that bell with all the strength I had in me. I was happy, I cried happy tears. I had my family, my Charlotte support system and my health team with me. There was a moment of calm that surrounded me in that moment. I was done with weakness, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, anxiety and pain. [But] I knew I wasn’t completely cured at that time.”

From there, Akwi’s treatment plan continued with a lumpectomy, radiation and additional oral chemotherapy and immunotherapy after surgery. And now, on the other end of those treatments, Akwi has no evidence of cancer remaining.

Using her Voice to Help Others

Even though it’s typical for people from Cameroon to stay silent about cancer, Akwi decided to do the opposite. She wrote about her cancer journey on Facebook, sharing that cancer brings both good days and bad days, and her insistence on meeting both with grace and strength. Her goal became, “to inspire as many as I can, to use my journey as a torch not only to shine a light on the way towards fulfillment but also as a symbol of optimism, faith and – above all – hope.”

“I had a lot of people from Cameroon reach out to me then! They were telling me they had cancer, too,” Akwi says. “But back home there was no treatment, and I wanted to help. So I created a non-profit!”

Now, Akwi runs Dare to Live with Anjoh Foundation, a dream that began in the chair where she had her first infusion of chemotherapy. Through her foundation, Akwi wants to teach others about breast cancer, self-exams, risk factors and treatments. She hopes that this education leads to earlier diagnoses, better outcomes and less fear for people in her adopted and home countries. Akwi wants to show others that cancer doesn’t equate to a death sentence and to empower people to take control of their health. For those dealing with breast cancer, she hopes to encourage them to live as fully as possible during treatment and recovery, on good days and bad days.

“Akwi dealt with the pressures of this diagnosis while she had a young child, with most of her family in Africa, and I’m unbelievably proud of her for pushing through it and doing what she needed to do,” Dr. Heeke says. “She did the hard work, in learning how to use all of the negative energy from her diagnosis and put toward something positive – in creating her non-profit.”

Akwi continues to have no evidence of disease, and she returns for regular mammograms for monitoring. She began a new career in information technology, and her daughter is now four years old. Just a couple years earlier, she feared her life was over when she received her cancer diagnosis. Now, on the other side of it, she realizes how full life is as a survivor – not to mention as the leader of her own advocacy organization.

“My goal is to create awareness of breast cancer. That keeps me going!” Akwi says.

Read additional coverage from WSOC.

Learn more about breast cancer care at Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute, or learn more about Akwi Anjoh’s non-profit organization, Dare to Live with Anjoh.